The Backfire Effect: How Obama is a Radical Islamist and Can’t Prove Otherwise



I’m sure the title tricked you (and that’s what it meant to do), but which assertion grabs your attention?

“Obama is a Radical Islamist Kenyan.”

“Obama is an American Born Christian.”

Most people gravitate towards the first statement, no matter how preposterous it may be. And although the statement is ridiculous, unsubstantiated and easily debunked, the truth is irrelevant in the court of public opinion.

When the crazy wing of the conservative base launched the accusation that Obama is not an American born citizen, every headline for weeks (depending on the news source and its political leanings) read something along the lines of, “Was Obama Born in the U.S.?” or “Obama was Not Born In Kenya.”

No matter what side of this nonsensical debate you were on, those headlines wielded so much power that people immediately accepted the statement that reinforced their own political preferences, the facts be damned.

Even after all reputable media outlets quickly shot down the charge that Obama was not born in the U.S., the debunking of the radical Islamist Kenyan myth actually reinforced the beliefs of many conservative Obama haters. In 2011, an amazing 51% of Republican primary voters believed President Obama was not born in the U.S.

Even more remarkably, in 2012, well after this “news” was done circulating, Dartmouth government professor Benjamin Valentino found that 64% of Republican respondents in a study still believed President Obama was born in another country.

So, why does the mass media have such a hard time correcting misperceptions that distort public opinion?

Research has shown that people are great at rejecting arguments and evidence that contradict our opinions. Ideological subgroups (liberals and conservatives) fail to update their beliefs when presented credible information that discredits their biases.

This is what political scholars call the backfire effect or confirmation bias: When your most dearly held beliefs are challenged and proven false by contradictory evidence, your original beliefs grow stronger. You can be presented with the facts, but most of the time they are ineffectual at correcting your misconceptions. Moreover, any attempt to educate often backfires and simply causes entrenchment in the original belief.

The basis of this problem lies in what psychologists call cognitive rigidity- a refusal to appreciate other people’s points of view that leads to unwillingness to change behavior. Once we have accepted what we perceive to be a plausible explanation for something, we develop a cognitive framework that only reinforces all of our prior conclusions despite any contradictory evidence presented.

As Ryan Holiday notes in his book Trust Me, I’m Lying, “The facts that built an original premise are gone, but the conclusion remains – the general feeling of our opinion floats over the collapsed foundation that established it.”

Let’s use the Michael Brown shooting as an example. What we now know from eyewitnesses is Michael Brown was unarmed and on the ground with his hands in the air when he was shot and killed by a police officer. There have been no eyewitness accounts of Brown attacking the officer or evidence he struggled to obtain the officer’s weapon.

But lets say that during the trial, evidence was produced showing Brown did try to grab the officer’s weapon and attack him. Would the opinion of Michael Brown’s supporters about the guilt of the police officer change? Research suggests it would not.

What makes it even harder for the press to change ludicrous misperceptions is the political polarization of the American public, a polarization for which the backfire effect is partially responsible.

Due to rapid advances in technology, we live in a time when news (and fake news) is easily accessible, simple to read and can go viral almost instantaneously. News gets to the public faster and only reinforces a person’s cognitive dissonance. What is worse is that the media actually pours gasoline on the fire – most of the time without malicious intent – because that’s their job!

In a hope to change public opinion by presenting actual news, the press doesn’t really change anybody’s views. You can’t just provide credible information to people anymore and debate has become almost pointless.


About Eric Bates

Eric received his B.S. in political science with an emphasis in international relations from Santa Clara University in 2012. Upon graduating, he traveled and worked for a non-profit in Central America. He is a religious viewer of Conan O’Brien and also loves traveling. Eric is attending San Jose State University's graduate school program to receive a M.A. in Journalism and Mass Communications. He can be reached at
Posted in: Politics, Society
  • smrstrauss

    It is worthwhile for students of journalism to recall the fundamentals. In any survey, if people are asked: “Do you believe X” and 44% say that they did, does that mean that 44% believe X?

    NO, it means that 44% SAY that that they believe X.

    The same has always been used for individuals too, of course (we just seem to forget it where surveys are concerned.) George told the interviewer that he was a veteran of the Gulf War. Does that mean that he was? No it only means that he says that he was (if the journalist wants to obtain confirmation, that is different).

    Okay, so in surveys the results do not necessarily reflect what people believe. They reflect what they SAY they believe—-which statement may be affected by other motives.

    One rising motive where surveys are concerned is simply the “I’m irritated at all these questions an so I’m going to put down something that shocks people” attitude, which appears to to be rising.

    I have no evidence of it, but here’s a mental experiment.

    Suppose were were to ask a large statistically accurate polling sample: “It is often said that 2+1=3. Do you agree Yes/NO?”

    Well, there would inevitably be some percentage who checks off NO.

    Why? Because they really don’t believe that 2+1=3, or because of something else?

    IN any case, the right wing has been pounding away at the birther myth for six years, and they have blogs every day and a few stupid public figures, like Donald Trump, and yet according to a recent survey, only about as high a percentage of people say that they believe that Obama was born in a foreign country or are not sure (the two added together) as those that believe that space aliens crash landed in Roswell NM—and nobody actively is supporting the alien story.
    Now that doesn’t seem so terribly bad, does it?

  • Stan Sinberg

    I believe whatever I believed before I read this post!